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LOS ANGELES — As I arrived recently at the Fowler Museum, I made a beeline toward the exhibition José Montoya’s Abundant Harvest: Works on Paper / Works on Life, rushing past a beautifully situated cloister and a series of photographs recording the efforts of the Legalize LA labor activist campaign. I landed, a bit breathless, in a warmly lit gallery. Painted on a red wall was a large eagle, the symbol of the United Farm Workers union, grounding the exhibition in the history of Chicano labor activism — with which Montoya was long involved.
José Montoya (1932–2013) was an artist, professor, activist, and former poet laureate of Sacramento. He was also a co-founder of the Rebel Chicano Art Force (RCAF), which was later cheekily renamed the Royal Chicano Air Force. Born in New Mexico and raised by a family of migrant workers, Montoya devoted his life and practice to securing rights for Chicano laborers. His son, Richard Montoya —a member of the performance group Culture Clash — and the independent curator Selene Preciado sifted through Montoya’s archive to whittle down this exhibition to a somewhat manageable 2,000 objects.
Five long rows of display cases gleam under bright lights, gently filtering visitors through the exhibition, while a non-invasive soundtrack of guitar music plays. Vitrines displaying Montoya’s drawings are designed to resemble rows of produce crates — specifically, grape trays — propped upon white tubing structures that evoke plumbing or irrigation systems. Although the boxes are stamped neatly on the sides with sequential numbers or letters, there is no chronological organization of the work in the exhibition. The monitor that loops a short informational video on Montoya sits on a sturdy-looking stand made of flattened cardboard boxes. The two stools placed in front of the television are also constructed from stacks of cardboard.
Montoya’s hand was quick, the jagged lines of his drawings and etchings bringing to mind Ralph Steadman’s illustrations from the 1970s. Colored-in work pops with expressive bubblegum blues and pinks, or gradients that evoke Pacific sunsets. Drawings and objects are loosely and poetically grouped by themes including Southern California landscapes (palms, highways, etc.), farm animals (dogs, cows, etc.), and death (skulls, ghosts, etc.). Four rows are labeled with the cardinal directions, each stamped with “Con Safos,” a Chicano phrase that translates to “with respect and protection.” Many of the sketches in the display cases were completed rapidly and improvisationally, incorporating numerous materials like watercolor, pastel, and pencil, words and illustrations peppering coffee shop napkins and hotel notepads. Other bits and bobs — poems banged out on typewriters and marked up, lists, and collectible memorabilia — share space with the drawings.
All forms of imagery recur, but Montoya casts the pachuco and pachuca as symbolic figures populating his universe. The stylish midcentury men and women wear suits and dresses with exaggerated tailoring, donning brimmed hats and toting enviable accessories. He sought to celebrate these glamorous figures, who were often criticized and marginalized for their flashy dress during World War II, when citizens were called upon to ration goods and forgo luxuries. What others condemned as wasteful, Montoya saw as an attempt to craft an alternative identity that could not be smothered by calls to assimilate into mainstream American culture — which often excluded these men and women anyway.
When you’re educated in the art historical lineage of European modernism, it’s difficult to divorce that trajectory from your own visual vocabulary. As I explored Montoya’s exhibition, the names of dead white men flashed through my head as I noted the familiar subject matter: humorous groupings of people in public (Honoré Daumier); clandestine lovers sharing a meal (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec); and scenes of agricultural labor (Jean-François Millet). However, Montoya is no mere flâneur or sketcher of modern life. His enormous artistic output cycled through the attendant pleasures and pains of being involved in one’s community and defending one’s civil rights. He was also a lifelong activist and educator, and Abundant Harvest makes clear that Montoya was chronicling an alternative history of the US in the latter half of the 20th century.
He gave a voice to and provided an iconography for the Chicano labor activist movement that bubbled up in California during the postwar period. Seen in light of the anti-immigrant sentiment that is currently tearing through the country, Montoya’s stylized portrayals of the lives of Chicano men and women make visible stories too often absent the history — and the present day — of the US.
José Montoya’s Abundant Harvest: Works on Paper / Works on Life runs through July 17 at the Fowler Museum (308 Charles E Young Drive North, Los Angeles, California).